News Comment

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Kim Bielenberg: In struggling Haiti, even former US presidents roll up their sleeves to help build houses

Published 03/12/2012 | 14:31

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President Jimmy Carter working on site in Haiti

PAUDIE Halpin was travelling back to the airport in Port-au-Prince in Haiti at the weekend through a crowded street when he captured a truly shocking image on his mobile phone.

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Later, when we were in the airport terminal, ready to depart for Ireland, he showed me the picture. It showed a man's body lying on the side of the street, with his face covered. The photo shows just a couple of people standing by concerned at the man’s plight, while others just go about their business.



I wondered how this person could lie randomly in the street. Did he die of disease, possibly the cholera that was brought to Haiti by UN troops, or was he attacked?



The image may have been shocking, but the death was not all that surprising in the shanty towns of Port-au-Prince, where many have no proper housing or sanitation. The streets are rubbish-strewn.



Paudie, a former Waterford hurler,and his friend, Johnny Ryan from Tipperary were part of a crack team of 90 Irish volunteers, who helped to build 100 houses in just a week, at Santo south of Port-au-Prince for the Irish charity Haven.



They were working in partnership with the huge organisation Habitat for Humanity on the annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project at Santo, south of Port-au-Prince.



Paudie and Johnny finished their assigned houses early and so they volunteered to help complete two of the others.



At about 1.30, they were somewhat taken aback to be joined by a distinguished foreman, none other than former President Jimmy Carter himself. Half a dozen Secret Service men stood nearby.



Every year Carter,88, leads a housing project somewhere in the world, and directs the building of a house himself. On Friday Carter, himself a skilled carpenter, had also finished building his house early, and decided to take charge elsewhere.



His participation was by no means token, as the Irish builders were to discover. Since he finished his term as President way back in 1981, Carter has become one of the foremost advocates of affordable housing in the world.



It has been estimated that Habitat for Humanity helps to house one family every seven minutes across the world.



As the Irish volunteers laboured in 35 degrees heat on Friday, Carter issued commands from inside their house. He himself was not shy of physical work, lifting big window shutters and ensuring they fitted the window gaps.



I was poking a paintbrush around a nearby house, and was almost wilting when I received orders to lift some scaffolding for the house where the former President was working.



Paudie Halpin, a carpenter by trade, was working on the roof, when Carter shouted up to him: "When are we going to put the windows in?”



"I'll just be two minutes!" Paudie snapped back.



Within a short time Jimmy Carter, Paudie and Johnny, and other Irish volunteers, had the house completed.



The houses were built for families who have been living in tents or huts since the earthquake of 2010.



Carter describes the effects of housing projects such as the one at Santo as "a drop in a bucket".



But they still have a profound impact on those who move in. Carter hopes they will be a model for housing development in the beleaguered republic.



Murat Aubin, 30, who moved into one of the Carter houses in an earlier phase of the project, said in an interview: "I cannot compare this house to how we were living before. By noon the tent (we used to live in) would be boiling inside. You could not stay inside for one minute. Now we are comfortable even in the summer. And we are safe."



As well as the heat, tent dwellers have to cope with snakes, spiders and insects getting in. They are also more vulnerable to robbery and physical attack. For those with new houses much of the risk has gone.



The work of Haven and Habitat for Humanity has transformed the lives of its beneficiaries. If it could be replicated by others on an enormous scale in the slums where a dead body was spotted casually lying on the street at the weekend, Haiti truly would be on the road to recovery.



* Haven is seeking donations for its work in Haiti. More information: www.havenpartnership.com

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